My weaknesses define my strengths, not my identity
My various challenges don't define my identity, but they do help define my strengths.
I'm intentionally public about the challenges I've faced: Childhood parental trauma (aka abuse), death of two siblings and my father, a familial history of depression (I've been diagnosed with bipolar 2) and ADHD (inattentive presentation). But those things don't define who I am, and they're not excuses for achieving less.
I'm a husband, a father, a person who cares deeply about others, and I want to always do the right thing, even if it costs me something. That is what defines my identity.
Interestingly, my weaknesses don't define who I am, but they do help define my strengths.
I'm unnaturally good at empathizing with people. It's something that is so simple, it almost confuses me when people "don't know what to say" when a friend or family member is going through trauma. I'm nearly anti-empathetic to people who can't show empathy. (lol) Back-to-back-to-back-to-back trauma has a way of making it simple to understand trauma for other people.
I'm also great at taking big things and distilling them down into small chunks of information which can be distributed broadly across people or organizations. ADHD means both distractibility, but also hyper-focus which is useful in understanding an idea completely. I'm then able to break that down into a story for others.
My startup, Vidpresso, was an illustration of this. Despite (in retrospect) being among the worst / smallest markets I now can think of, my cofounders and I were able to execute at a high enough level to be "successful." Our customers were (at a minimum) satisfied with our customer service. A major component of that customer service was a minimal time between talking to a customer and implementing a solution for them. Again, hyper focus leading to a fast, good enough result.
On the other hand, it's fairly difficult for me to bring projects across the finish line. Vidpresso illustrated a lot of novel concepts, and all trended toward a much bigger vision for the world, but our code was buggy. Embarrassingly so at times. I now understand I'm a great hacker, but I'm not a "code monster."
I'm able to build a lot of prototypes, hacks, and proofs of concept in small amounts of time, but when it comes to productionizing those into something meaningful, I tend to flame out before a project finishes. I attribute this to the inattentive flavor of ADHD, where I have a background process constantly running all day, every day, giving me new ideas to pursue on a constant basis.
In retrospect, the TV industry is the perfect place for someone like myself. Every day is a new show. Yesterday's show doesn't matter whatsoever. Every day is a chance for something interesting. Each show is an opportunity to creatively execute. Results are immediate. You can imperfectly understand your impact relative to your competitors through Nielsen ratings.
It's why I fell in love with the industry from a young age. Live TV is an adrenaline rush. The director counts down from 10, and when you hit 0 there's no turning back. Every second of the show is transmitted to thousands or millions of people, and every mistake is burned into the retinas of your audience. There's no take backs.
The good news about this work: even if the show doesn't work, as long as it meets the minimum catastrophe bar... nobody gets fired. The crew learns from the mistake, comes back the next show, makes the show better, and ideally makes different mistakes the next day.
Some shows are perfect and everything completely works, unexpectedly so. But some shows are just terrible, and sometimes expectedly so. At the end, the crew slinks out of the control room and partakes of various vices to decompress.
Either scenario is generally acceptable in TV. Firing crew members is an act executives use to save face further up the chain for completely unacceptable events. The outcome of any individual episode isn't as important as the consistency over the long haul.
In this way, it's similar to professional team sports. Each game builds on the previous one. Teams can go on a streak and have a bunch of great or terrible games consecutively, but these individual games or individual streaks don't define the team. The consistency of the team over a season, or honestly multiple seasons, defines the team's legacy.
Outside of the game, players can practice new techniques, plays, and concepts to improve game performance, but it's the game, not practice that matters. 10,000 perfect practices still don't count as much as a single game, or sometimes even a single second in a game.
For me, executing a series of features on a product isn't the game... it's the ideas behind the product or feature that are the game. Surfacing those ideas to others and having them execute is the best version of the work "game" for myself.
Pauli, one of my best friends, once said jokingly during a meeting at Facebook, "During Vidpresso days, we had to wait a week to see if the idea Randall had would actually be a good one, or if he'd find another better one."
Building one idea into the perfect state isn't where I'm most effective... it's experimenting with dozens of ideas until one leads me down the right path to the next set of ideas. It's stick slip.
I'm now learning this likely means I have more in common with a researcher than an early stage startup CEO or a big company management.
If an executive in a company changes direction frequently (thrash in Facebook parlance), the knock on effects are so severe it can completely derail dozens, hundreds or even thousands of peoples' work. A researcher, by contrast, explains or develops a new idea for others to build off of. It's a jumping off point for further experimentation.
The times which Vidpresso executed the most effectively were almost exclusively on deadline. In 2014 when we joined Y Combinator, we grew revenue from ~$6,000 / month to ~$24,000 during the course of the three month program. It then flatlined for years.
In countless other circumstances, when a customer would have an issue, we'd immediately start working on the problem and ship it as fast as possible, sometimes moments before a show went live.
In 2016 when we knew we had a chance to be on stage at F8 to announce our new product, we hit the deadline and did what we said we'd do. The product, however, didn't actually work that effectively. I spent the next few weeks basically living inside of BuzzFeed HQ where I worked with them to frantically fix our buggy software. We made it work, but the work we did with BuzzFeed's entertainment side ultimately was shelved for a variety of reasons, including our lackluster track record.
Each time instead of releasing something buggy, then iterating on it till it was great, I would instead push the team toward a new idea which had its own set of bugs, and then another new idea with bugs building on the previous set, etc. Each instance was a hack building on another hack, never reaching quality.
We transitioned some of the software we had used for our TV station business into an encoding pipeline for our new FB Live business. The hack kept us in business and doubled our revenue. But, we never built something sustainable.
That software was the first software we jettisoned when we got to Facebook. Eventually all of Vidpresso was shut down, and couldn't do the things we had envisioned, due to technical debt.
In 2018 when Facebook was working on projects related to interactivity, we built yet another hackish project to execute against the new ideas of interactivity. We did what we said, and it worked like it was supposed to, but it was still hacky. That project led to our acquisition, but the product direction was ultimately shelved by higher ups, so our hack ended up being the best hack of my life and did exactly what it needed to do, with nothing additional.
In a talk with a friend, he pointed out Facebook is full of "code monster" software engineers. They're the best in the world at what they do: Churn out production code that powers the biggest social network in the history of the world.
Instead of leaning into my strengths, I've been trying to lean into others strengths, which hasn't led to me developing my weaknesses into bigger strengths, it's just made me feel bad about myself, and has made me unhappy. I've spent so much energy trying to be "one of the tribe," I've ignored what brought me to the tribe in the first place.
So this is the moment of clarity. It's time for a change.
I'm going to be world class at the sport I'm best at. LeBron James isn't an olympic sprinter, and Michael Phelps doesn't play baseball. In fact, Michael Jordan might be the canonical example of this when he tried to switch to baseball. The greatest basketball player of all time was never called up to the majors.
That means transition at work to something that fits my skillset more effectively: Shorter, bite sized projects. Here, I'm going to write more content with more reckless abandon instead of fretting over editing nuance. I'll explore new ideas through live interviews in venues like Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse, FB Live, and others. I'll make short, vlog style videos to take my posts and work on them in a way that exercises my video muscles to reach a wider audience. I'm going to release all of my code to the world under the MIT license. Perhaps someone can take the useful bits of new ideas and turn into a sustainable open source project. Or not. Either way.
I'm going to define my work as the short-term guy. I come up with amazing ideas, execute them at a high level, and then move on.
I need to share the best parts of me with the world if I'm ever going to make it better. I'm not going to make it better by being a better version of you.
in making this list, I realized I left off my brain tumor. It didn't even make the top 5 things that I define as challenges. The point I'm trying to illustrate is not "i've had a ton of challenges!" but instead EVERYONE has challenges. People rarely talk about them, i'm guessing because they make folks feel insecure. Because I don't feel they define me as a person, nor what I'm capable of, I talk publicly about them. Interestingly, I think this makes the individual challenges themselves define me less, but the collection of traits and my openness tends to define me more. ↩︎
As a Utah Jazz fan, this year has taught me this lesson more than any other. The Jazz have been the #1 team in terms of wins, and countless other statistics. They have been building this team for the last 5 years. This year is their best year to date. To their fans, they're the best team ever. To the rest of the league, they're still the small market team. The warriors were the "bad California team" until 2015 when they started to cement their legacy as one of the best teams of all-time. I look forward to the Jazz doing the same. But for them, being consistent over the course of the playoffs and ultimately winning a championship is the only way for them to define their team differently to the rest of the league. ↩︎
Once, our HTTPS certificate expired the moment a show went live. We were on-site, and diagnosed and fixed in minutes, but it was very, very poor timing. Our customer was more impressed that we cared / fixed the problem immediately, and led to us having a sustained business. ↩︎
Inadvertently I realize by high level in this case I mean both an increased quality relative to others, but also short on detail and edge cases. ↩︎